Don't believe the hype 

Brown and Lai skewer pop cultural crossroads at Saltworks

Stella Lai and Iona Rozeal Brown, two female artists who are anything but shrinking violets, both paint with fierce attitude served up with a foxy style and wit.

Considering the profusion of seductive color and visual punch, it would be easy to just take Brown and Lai at face value. But the artists' new works, created with each other in mind for When the East Is in the House at Saltworks, aren't just eye candy. Lai and Brown are interested in our world of images, images that sell sex and identity and that draw from both ancient and modern traditions.

Brown is especially skilled at serving up satisfying swigs of visual pleasure with her frisky cross-cultural, pan-historical remixes. For some time now, this Washington, D.C.-based artist has been looking at the overlaps and shared traditions between an ancient art form -- Japanese woodblock prints of samurai and geisha -- and the more contemporary world of hip-hop's bling-bling excess.

Global collisions of past and present, West and East are just the state of things these days, and Brown delights in mixing up hip-hop culture's ironic Afros and man jewelry with the samurai grimaces and stylized graphics of Edo-period prints. It turns out that ancient Japanese and contemporary hip-hop cultures have some gender overlap too, in the extremes of chest-beating machismo and female sexual servitude, whether in the geisha or the hip-hop groupie. Brown taps into a similar impulse for caricature in both groups, whether the livin' large attitude of hip-hop or the extreme frontin' of the samurai.

But in Brown's latest work, the bling has gone way bad, consuming its practitioners like a gimme-pandemic. In "cling: 'i can't help it, it's sooo beautiful,'" an image of a samurai in a venti 'fro finds that his hipster attire of neck chain, earrings, watch and toothy grillwork has been replaced by an invasion of sci-fi orange polyps sprouting like pustules on his symbols of le bling.

Those invading armies of abstracted greed infect a number of Brown's subjects -- a blond, shirtless white boy in "cling to me, boer to me," and a topless, blue-taloned sexpot in "dangerous: the appearances of a contemporary ma of the cling period." Another body of work centers on ferocious, blob-like creatures with gaping mouths and disturbing appetites. Brown calls the creatures, which look like a cross between a parasitic raisin and some anime-style graffiti tag, "w.o.i.m.s." or "weapons of irresponsible mass spending." They are consumed by strange desires, and their graffiti-stylized freakishness is an interesting contrast to the cool, measured allure of Stella Lai's similar commentary on consumption and need.

Hong Kong-born Lai offers her own singular commentary on contemporary life and the strange collisions that define it in a beautifully detailed series centered on Hong Kong as a region of tumultuous change.

Hidden within Lai's richly patterned works, rendered in gouache on paper and panel, are nude and nearly nude shadow-women from Hong Kong's red light district who pose and strut in provocative gestures. Their silhouettes are the same instantly recognizable, iconic T&A of trucker mud flaps and topless bar signage, suggesting the neon enticements of any sex district where the codes of conduct are as precise and basic as the bling in Brown's works.

The patterns in Lai's series suggest the linoleum tiles in old buildings and create a unique tension between low-down seedy and tragic, old-world lovely. Illustrating an idea of female passivity in both ancient Asian culture and contemporary capitalism, Lai ornaments her paintings with precisely detailed flowers as an idealized representation of femininity next to the more degraded image of sex workers.

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